Nannygate: Tip of the iceberg?

Spat over arrest of Indian envoy comes amid strained ties between India and US over China and Bangladesh among others.

The fracas involving Devyani and her maid Sangeeta Richard has been building up for a while [Al Jazeera]
The fracas involving Devyani and her maid Sangeeta Richard has been building up for a while [Al Jazeera]

One of India’s veteran diplomats, Nirupama Rao, has asked a pertinent question – did the US not weigh the disastrous consequences when it allowed marshals to arrest Indian deputy-consul in New York, Devyani Khobragade, and humiliate her by strip-searching and cavity-searching!

Rao, a former Indian foreign secretary and an ex-ambassador to the US, is shocked.

“This incident has created a crater in the bilateral relationship and we in India have reasons to protest the way we have,” Rao said, as she prepared for a stint as a Fellow at the USA’s Brown University.

The fracas involving Devyani and her maid Sangeeta Richard has been building up for a while. Both had filed complaints against each other – the diplomat alleging the maid was ‘blackmailing’ her to get herself settled in the US and trying to extort money, while the maid alleged under-payment and being overworked.

But when Devyani was arrested and humiliated, the Indians were taken by surprise, because this happened immediately after India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh ended a visit to Washington.

Now there is evidence that the US embassy in Delhi had issued special T series visas to the maid Sangeeta Richard and her entire family – and that it was cleared by the State Department to do so.

The US authorities have used the term ‘evacuation’ to describe the flying out of the Richard family because they feared Devyani’s family was trying to silence them through ‘retaliatory action’ in Indian courts.

The fact that the Richards got their new Indian passports as they prepared to leave for the US belies the claim that Indian authorities were joining Devyani in her so-called retaliatory action against maid Sangeeta. Or else she would not have got a new passport.

Vibrant democracy

President Barack Obama has said during his last visit to India that India’s judiciary was one of the pillars of her vibrant democracy. Indian politicians have been at the receiving end of judicial activism and even senior members of the judiciary have not been spared investigation on allegations of corruption or sexual misconduct.

So why do US diplomats fear the judiciary would favour Devyani! A Supreme Court judgmement on a case moved by her batch-mate actually pulled up the Ministry of External Affairs for favouring Devyani on choice of language at the beginning of her career.

India’s top officials now feel that the ‘evacuation’ was a well-planned operation because it was done in total secrecy and timed to precede Devyani’s arrest that came soon after Sujatha Singh left Washington, with many contentious issues unresolved.

It resembled the ‘exfil’ of a top CIA asset in India’s external intelligence Ravinder Singh in 2004, when Singh vanished from Delhi, dodging counter-intelligence surveillance already in place against him and flew into US via Nepal.

India did not press hard on the issue because it failed to get incontrovertible evidence and also because it would have spoiled the bonhomie in the rundown to the India-US nuclear deal.

The feeling in Delhi’s policy-making circles is that action such as Devyani’s arrest and humiliation are generally done to send a strong message. But why would a strategic partner and an ally try sending a strong message to a friend?

Strained ties

This incident has created a crater in the bilateral relationship and we in India have reasons to protest the way we have

Nirupama Rao, Former Indian ambassador to the US

In the past one year or so, ties between India and the US have been tense with the two often publicly disagreeing on contentious regional issues.

The spat between the US and Indian envoys in Dhaka has been reported in the Bangladesh media, where the perception is that India is trying to support Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party and the US is keen on a regime change to bring the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance to power.

India has argued that it would not interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, which means it would let Hasina go ahead with the January 5 parliamentary polls that the entire opposition is boycotting.

The US was keen that India would push the ruling Awami League party hard to concede to a ‘level playing field’ for the opposition, meaning polls under a non-political caretaker which it wanted.

Indian diplomats were quoted in Bangladesh and India as saying that the two countries were ‘not on the same page’ as far as Bangladesh was concerned.

The disagreements forced the US’ Dhaka envoy Dan Mozena to fly to Delhi for discussions with Indian officials. But no agreement emerged as India continued to argue that it had serious concerns over the Jamaat in view of its alleged links to radical terror groups.

The Western press has blamed India for ‘looking the other way’ as Hasina goes ahead with a one-sided elections.

The US also feels that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign the US-proposed Bilateral Security Pact with Indian encouragement because the last time Karzai spoke out strongly against signing the pact without getting what he wanted was in Delhi on December 14. India has denied the charge.

‘Handshake across the Himalayas’

That would give the US the feeling that Karzai was so brazen in opposition, and his discussions with Indian officials have something to do with it. Indian officials sound a line similar to the one taken on Bangladesh.

Karzai has reservations and domestic compulsions and India likes to leave him to decide whether he should sign the pact and when if that be so. “We can’t interfere in the internal affairs of a country run by someone we consider to be a friend” seems to be the Indian line on Bangladesh and Afghanistan – something that would upset the US in no small measure.

But it is India’s strong and friendly engagement with China which would upset Washington more than anything else.

Confronted with the surcharged atmosphere back home over alleged Chinese “incursions” last year, India moved decisively to defuse them with a border defence cooperation agreement within a few months.

In between, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang came to India offering a ‘handshake across the Himalayas’ and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Beijing to oversee a host of agreements, that included border defence cooperation and sharing information on common rivers.

Now India is moving ahead with China on implementing the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) “economic corridor” around the friendship road connecting the four nations. The last BCIM meeting in Kunming agreed on ‘joint research’ to find ways to establish the dream ‘economic corridor’.

Sino-Indian bonhomie

The US has not formally reacted to the Sino-Indian bonhomie, but many in its establishment feel the Indian engagement with China is diluting its ‘Asian rebalancing’, which aims to contain the Dragon through a network of security and economic alliance involving China’s rimland nations like India, Japan, Vietnam, Australia and the ASEAN.

“You guys are letting the Chinese off the hook when all other neighbours are reacting sharply to their aggressive intentions” was how a senior US academic known for close relations to the State Department described the feelings in Washington.

The US is the big brother in any such alliance and it expects allies to fall in line and follow ground rules laid down by Washington. So if the US flies its B-52s over the Chinese identification zone, it would expect Japan and South Korea to do the same. When that happens, US has good reasons to treat Japan and South Korea as useful – and loyal – allies.

It cannot put up with ‘handshake across the Himalayas’ after a huge border spat between India and China – and cannot appreciate why India has done what it has. It has its own ideas of balancing Asia – where it sees an engagement with both China and its neighbours as well with Australia and the US as key to maintain Asia as a continent of peace and tranquility rather than one of conflict.

India has reasons to be upset with Obama’s protectionism and the reforms that threatens its IT companies. The US has reasons to be upset with India’s insistence on liability for US companies trying to sell nuclear reactors.

In fact, Manmohan Singh’s back-tracking on the nuclear liability issue has not gone down well in India where memories of the Bhopal disaster (and the failure to bring the US company responsible for it to book) still rankles.

There were major differences between the two strategic partners over Iran, but with Obama changing tack, Delhi feels relieved as it finds a way to revive its traditionally warm ties with Iran without upsetting the US.

Former State Department official William Avery’s book China’s nightmare, America’s Dream: India the next Super Power is instructive on what India needs to do to belong to the powerful US-driven global club.

Until India abandons its independent foreign policy, agrees to the US dictations in the neighbourhood, and follow Uncle Sam’s lead on China, the heat and dust over l’affaire Devyani will not go away, and such incidents will topple out of the closet once in a while.

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